By Tildy Banker-Johnson
Superhero movies are not a new phenomenon at all. They are certainly more recent then say, Dracula and ever since Christopher Reed played the Man of Steel in Superman in 1978, there has been a widespread market for superhero movies.
In the week before the new X-Men movie comes out, I want to explore why these movies are so popular. They seem to appeal to a wide range of audiences—not just those who love the comic books, nor those who just enjoy a good action film. They also appeal to those of us who have never read a comic book in their lives, and those of us who prefer not to waste time or money on mindless action sequences, where CGI rules in things being blown up, burnt down, and guns being fired and gore everywhere. They appeal to people who enjoy action in addition to character development and solid plot points. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a good fight or chase scene or two; I just prefer that it not be the entire substance of the movie.
For those of you living under a rock, you may not know that Marvel Entertainment is in the midst of building a franchise of Hulk-sized proportions, with multiple movies, and even a television show about all the superheroes in their universe, the link between them being the secret government agency, S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division—not that any of the actors except for maybe Clark Gregg, who repeats the name several times in Iron Man, could tell you that). Technically, Marvel Entertainment doesn’t own the rights to the X-Men franchise, although they do exist in the same universe, including the Fantastic Four. The first of these was Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and directed by Jon Favreau, in 2008, and the most recent film being Captain America: The Winter Soldier, also known as Captain America 2, starring Chris Evans and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, having just been released April 4th. Between these two movies stand seven others, for a total of nine. The movies next to be released are Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (aka The Avengers 2).
The Avengers, which premiered in May 2012, and was directed by Joss Whedon is the first film in the franchise that fully incorporates a multitude of Marvel’s superheroes. They are:
· Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers
· Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark
· The Black Widow, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff
· Hawkeye, a.k.a. Cliff Barton
· The Hulk, a.k.a. Dr. Bruce Banner
· Thor Odinson, the Norse god of Thunder
The plot feels almost inconsequential to just getting all these different personalities together in one place, let alone working together, in order to fulfill “The Avengers Initiative,” created by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. Aliens destroying New York? That’s nothing new. Although we do see in the movies that come after The Avengers, such as Iron Man 3, that the world is reeling from the fact that “we are not alone.” You’d think the Hulk’s fight with the evil, Hulk-like monster in The Incredible Hulk, which also takes place in New York City and is the second in the franchise’s reboot, would have tipped somebody off to the fact that weird things exist out there. Sure, Bruce Banner is technically a human exposed to gamma radiation, but considering that’s supposed to be a military secret, how are the citizens of the city, and the world, surprised to learn about aliens?
What makes the Avengers appealing isn’t really the main plot of invasive aliens lead by Thor’s adopted brother, Loki, who, since he can’t be king of Asgard, wants to be king of Earth. What works for audiences who enjoy more than just action is the character development that occurs, not only between those who make up the Avengers, but also Nick Fury, his staff (primarily Agent Coulson and Agent Hill), and Loki.
The dialogue of the film is what really makes the character development accessible to the audience. There are many pithy one-liners that come from all of the characters, not just the always-quotable Tony Stark. The humor in these lines establishes relationships between the characters, both those in the film, and those who appear off-screen. This expands on the overarching connection Marvel had been building up to, through extra scenes in the first five movies released before The Avengers. In the films that come after The Avengers, there are references back to it, such as when Jane Foster slaps Loki, and quips “That was for New York,” when she meets him in Asgard in Thor: The Dark World (otherwise known as Thor 2).
The way in which the superheroes speak to each other is not, at the start, a tone of camaraderie. There are clearly tensions that exist, such as that between Captain America and Iron Man. This is resolved later in the film through a crisis, in which the two have to work together to save the ship that S.H.I.E.L.D. is anchored on, and the teamwork they develop in this scene is demonstrated later in the film, during the final showdown in New York. Other tensions at the start of the film include Iron Man’s fight in the woods with Thor, who has come to take his brother back to Asgard, or at least stop him in invading from Earth, their sibling rivalry obvious, even to those who didn’t see Thor. The fight occurs when Thor takes Loki from the plane, and Iron Man and Captain America go after him, and only ends when the Captain steps in, and insists they all return to S.H.I.E.L.D.
Everyone on the ship is nervous about Bruce Banner, although both Fury and Romanoff attempt to reassure him that the glass cage Loki is being held in was not intended for Banner, although in reality revealed by Loki, it is. Only Tony Stark, who connects with him on a scientific level, is upfront and honest about Banner’s “condition,” quipping “and I’m a huge fan of the way you losecontrol and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” This is the only instant amity that occurs when all of the Avengers are assembled, and therefore allows Banner and Stark to better work together to find the tesseract. The tesseract is the super energy cube that creates portals through other worlds, and was featured in the film released just before The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger. Finding the tesseract and closing the portal Loki has opened to let the aliens in, is the true crux of the movie, although each of the Avengers has a different role in stopping Loki.
At the start of the film, in a battle sequence, which will immediately satisfy actions fans, two characters, Hawkeye and Dr. Erik Selvig, vital to S.H.I.E.L.D., are, for a lack of a better word, possessed, by Loki using the tesseract’s power (near the end of the film, they are both “cognitively recalibrated,” and no longer in Loki’s possession). Both of these characters are introduced to us in one of the more lackluster films in the franchise, Thor. And yet, the audience need not know that—I had only seen Iron Man prior to seeing The Avengers in theaters, so I had no prior knowledge of these characters were. And yet the way in which they are introduced in this film reveals all the audience needs to know: Hawkeye is an almost supernaturally gifted archer and agent for S.H.I.E.L.D., and Dr. Selvig is an astrophysicist, or some other type of scientist working with the magical cube. Whedon introduces these two to us through visual aides rather than dialogue, as he does with almost all other characters in the film. Selvig is typing calculations into a laptop, while examining the tesseract, and Hawkeye has a bow strapped to his back. Usually dialogue is only helpful in identification, when a character calls another by name, as when Selvig answers Nick Fury’s question of where Agent Barton is with: “What, the Hawk? He’s up in his nest,” and points upward. This sort of visual cue, in which the actors move to convey information, works in conjunction with the dialogue to captivate the audience. The use of visual aides however, is not prominent in all of the franchise’s movies.
Prior to The Avengers, only Captain America and Iron Man were particularly well received by critics, with Iron Man 2 receiving half-hearted praise, and Thor and The Incredible Hulk doing poorly. In Thor, there seem to be a lack of plot or motivation, and many of the characters seemed two-dimensional. Thor mindlessly wants battle and glory, and Loki, though clever, is obviously the villain. The special effects are what propel the film, with the CGI-crafted city of Asgard, Bifrost (the rainbow bridge portal between worlds) and the travel of the gods through the nine realms.
In The Incredible Hulk, what did not work were the many, many action scenes. This may have been a weak point in the movie, but was exacerbated by the fact that when there was not action scene, there was barely any dialogue. The huge information dump during the opening credits was particularly frustrating. People are still getting settled, and everything is happening too quickly to process. Here, Marvel assumed everyone knew the story of the Hulk, which may be true in a basic sense, but a chance to digest the revealed information would have been particularly helpful. CGI effects here too reign supreme in multiple explosions, while army men shoot futilely at the Hulk. (The bullets clearly bounce right off of him, so why are you still shooting? I shake my head.)
After The Avengers, the following Marvel movies have done much better. Granted two of these were sequels (Captain America 2 and Iron Man 3), but Thor 2 was much more character based, in which Jane Foster leads, with similar pithy dialogue, and emphasis on character relationships, not only in romance, but secondary relationships, such as with Thor and Loki’s mother, Frigga, and her bond not only to her sons, but to Jane as well. Secondary characters, such as Darcy, Jane’s research intern, and Dr. Selvig, are given more dialogue and provide more comic relief in relation to the plot (releasing the dark energy that possess Jane). This emphasis, taking its lead from The Avengers, created a more well-rounded and enjoyable film.
Aside from the dialogue that develops characters and relationships, one of the prominent themes running throughout the superhero movies is that they strive to make protagonist human, in some way, shape or form—usually having to do with love. In The Avengers, we don’t see this humanizing quality as much, although the scene in which Loki threatens Natasha, we see, or think we see a soft spot in her. He threatens to make Hawkeye, still possessed at this point in the film, kill her, and then wake him up long enough for him to see what he’s done, and then Loki will kill him too. He spits at Natasha “you mewling quim,” screaming through the walls of his glass cage, and she turns her back on him, seemingly sobbing. “You're a monster,” she says, and then Loki chuckles sinisterly, and says “Oh no, you brought the monster.” Natasha whips around, calm and clear, and we see that she has played Loki right into her hands, in getting him to reveal his plot to in allowing himself to be captured—to triggerBanner into becoming the Hulk—as Captain America suspected at the moment of seizure, earlier in the film. This moment shows Natasha’s prowess at interrogation, while also revealing her personal need “to wipe out red in my ledger,” and aside from her wicked mixed martial arts skills in the first few scenes of the film, showcases her ability to be a part of the Avengers without having actual superpowers, and while also being a woman. Later in the film, in a one-on-one moment with Hawkeye, we see that what Loki said, did in fact, shake her, but she used that softness to trick Loki instead.
Sometimes the humanizing quality is more obvious than in others, such as in Thor. The Norse god is actively stripped of his power and sent to Earth, where he falls in love with scientist Jane Foster. Ultimately he becomes a god again when his act of selfless self-sacrifice makes him worthy of wielding his hammer again. But as Loki so keenly points out, Thor is different (I believe “soft” is his choice phrase) than when he was banished from Asgard, and it’s “because of her.”
In other cases, it’s somewhat more subtle. Take Tony Stark. Over the three Iron Man movies he progresses from a selfish “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” who “doesn’t play well with others” to a man with a heart, as Pepper Potts so aptly points out in the first film. By Iron Man 3, we see Tony seemingly risking his own life to save those ejected from the fiery explosion of Air Force One, because he can only carry four, but there are thirteen to save. Through a barrel-of-monkeys technique, better explained when seen, Tony is able to save them all. Only we find out after they have all been safely dropped in the water, that Tony was never in that particular suit to begin with. The live action player mode through what appear to be Stark Industries’ version of Google glass, is how Tony is able to save them all, without ever putting his own life in danger.
And yet, it is important to the Marvel movies that the protagonist have some sort of fatal flaw. It’s not the flaw that makes them human and therefore relatable (oh yeah, Steve Rogers was once a normal guy, so I too can be like Captain America!), but rather something that jeopardizes their lives in a more significant way. Here the most obvious example lies with Iron Man.
Of all the Marvel movies currently out, Iron Man is the series currently with the most number of films, and so has the most data to work from. In each film, Tony Stark battles with some debilitating fatal flaw. In the first, a bomb which he created has sent shrapnel into his heart, and he has to install mini arc reactor with electromagnets in order to pull the shrapnel away from his heart (but apparently it’s not strong enough to actual pull the shrapnel out?). In the second film, the element which powers the mini arc reactor/electromagnet, while doing its job is also poisoning Tony, and in the end, he must create a new element in order to survive. In the most current film, Tony is suffering from what is essentially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When the adorable-yet-smart-aleck kid asks him if he has PTSD, Tony shouts no, while in the midst of a recurring panic attack that is in fact characteristic of the disorder (accompanied by flashbacks and nightmares, similar to what we see Bruce Banner experiencing in The Incredible Hulk.) It’s in this third film that Tony is the most relatable. Anyone can have a panic attack, or feel stressed, or not be able to sleep. How these problems came to affect Tony is not exactly typical, but who can’t relate to one of the above problems?
Let’s talk about the Batman movies for a moment. They’re amazing cinematically, and even in terms of storyline and villains. But Bruce Wayne, just isn’t that relatable of a character. He’s always dark and brooding, and he has more money than he knows what to do with. He is supremely unrelatable in fact, aside from the fact that he doesn’t actually have any super powers. His equivalent in the Marvel universe is, of course, Tony Stark. They are both ridiculously wealthy, both have dead parents, and neither have magical powers that let them save the world. But Tony is so different from Bruce in terms of personality that I don’t even know where to begin. Tony can crack jokes, and builds his own machinery; Bruce assumes his identity as Batman, and has a technological aid that does all the mental heavy lifting for him—by this virtue, Tony is more reliable in that he can fix whatever technology goes wrong around him, even if it isn’t his own.
Bruce also only works alone. In the Christian Bale trilogy, there isn’t even a Robin character until the third film, and even then he is a shadow of the sidekick character we know from the comic books and the show late '60s show starring Adam West. The closest we get is Alfred the Butler. And while Tony Stark tells us in The Avengers “I don’t play well with others,” we come to see that he does in fact manage to be part of the Avenger Assembly, and in fact actively sacrifices himself to save not only the other Avengers, but also the whole of New York, and essentially the world. Yes, he manages to survive, but if that isn’t taking one for the team, I don’t know what is. It’s this sort of character development that makes The Avengers and the majority of the other films in the Marvel franchise and universe so appealing to audiences with different backgrounds and tastes.
And what perhaps finally, makes The Avengers different from the other superheroes and other superhero movies, is that they don’t have anything in common, and they go their own ways after they save the world. Sure, they’ll reassemble next May when the second film in the series The Avengers: Age of Ultron, premieres. But unlike the X-Men who have to stay together because their mutant qualities make them undesirable to the world (what an allegory for xenophobia, but that’s a whole other review), these superheroes will have continue to have their own films, and still come together when called. Until then we can enjoy the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man, who according to the comic books, joins the Avengers initiative. I guess we’ll see what these new films and superheroes can add to the conversation.